MEDIA TRIALS AND THEIR UNDUE EFFECTS

Introduction

Indian democracy has three indispensable pillars- the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. All the three organs of the democracy help each other in their functioning and they keep checks and balances. The term ‘Fourth Pillar of the Democracy’ was coined by Thomas Carlyle. Hence, with time, media has been termed the fourth pillar of our democracy. Media has been vested with the power to deliver accurate news to the general public as a result of which media has been called the “mirror to the world” which not only reflects the genuine but also the brutal realities of the world without succumbing to any foreign pressure. It is well known that media has the vital power to shape people’s opinions but there have been times when it has misused its power media and has affected public opinion excessively. Media trial is a term that has evolved following the media’s excessive intervention and investigation of a case. The media tries a case, even before the case is heard by the judiciary. Today, owing to the pressure of TRP and to quench the public thirst for sensational news, media personnel bring to light very sensational and high-profile cases. These cases excite the general public for they want to be updated with every development of the case and they solely rely on the facts provided by the media irrespective of their credibility. While the media present their version of the story and they twist and turn the facts as per their convenience, which suits best their version of the story. Although following the cases so closely can be labelled as investigative journalism, it has been noticed often that the media over exercises this power. The names of a few cases of media trial have been, Arushi Talwar Case[1], Jessica Lal Case[2], and the most recent one being late actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s case.

Media & law

Freedom of the media is an integral part of the Freedom of speech and expression (Article 19(1))[3].  But just as an individual cannot enjoy and exercise such freedom absolutely; the media also has reasonable restrictions imposed on its right. The Press Council of India, set up in 1954, was established to regulate the conduct of media without any excessive government interference. The council had drawn certain norms on media reporting on court proceedings. It mentioned that the media must be cautious in criticizing judicial acts. It also mentioned that the media should refrain from publishing anything that has direct and immediate effect and creates a substantial risk of obstructing, impeding, or prejudicing seriously the due administration of justice. Most importantly, it should not present baseless and unjustified rumors as facts under any circumstance.[4]

200th Law Commission Report

The 200thLaw Commission[5] report titled “Trial by Media: Free Speech Vs. Fair Trial Under Criminal Procedure (Amendments to the Contempt of Court Act, 1971)” was published in August 2006, by the then Law Commissioner of India Justice M. Jagannadha Rao. The fact that the commission had taken up the subject Suo moto highlighted the urgency to address the deleterious impact of media investigation in the light of certain cases. These trials jeopardized the principle of natural justice in the view that investigative journalism and media trials declare the prime suspect or the accused as the convict. In the light of natural justice, the report mentioned that our law gives rights to a suspect/accused where he/she is entitled to a fair procedure of law and is presumed to be innocent till proved guilty in a Court of law. Consequently, none can be allowed to prejudge or prejudice a case or the accused before the trial is done. The report also emphasized the substantial use of television and cable services thereby leading them to have a probable prejudicial impact on the suspects, accused, witnesses, and even Judges and in general, on the administration of justice. The commission also endorsed the fact that media trials “make favorable or unfavorable references to the character or credibility of the accused or a witness; suggestions that the accused is guilty or involved in the crime for which he or she is charged or that the Jury should convict or acquit the accused.”Consequently, the report mentioned that media can uphold their rights and duty and should credibly perform their role as the ‘watch dog’ and should promote discussion of courts and the justice system “without publishing the most obviously prejudicial material specifically relevant to a case.”Sahara India Real Estate Corp. Ltd. Ors. vs Securities & Exchange Board of India & Anr.In this case, the judgment largely dealt with the issue- “Finding an acceptable constitutional balance between free press and administration of justice is a difficult task in every legal system.”[6] The matter that made this case more important was the instance when one of the news channels telecasted the details of the proposal that had been communicated only between the parties and which was strictly not meant for public circulation. Responding to this instance and showing their disapproval and disappointment with the abovementioned action, the Hon’ble Supreme Court stated, “We are distressed to note that even “without prejudice” proposals sent by learned counsel for the appellants to the learned counsel for SEBI has come on one of the TV channels. Such incidents are increasing by the day. Such reporting not only affects the business sentiments but also interferes in the administration of justice. In the above circumstances, we have requested learned counsel on both sides to make written application to this Court in the form of an I.A. so that appropriate orders could be passed by this Court with regard to reporting of matters, which are sub-judice.”With the ongoings, Sahara made prayers to the Supreme court to issue suitable directions concerning “the manner and extent of publicity to be given by the media” and also frame appropriate guidelines concerning reporting. In the judgment order, the Hon’ble court accepted the fact that excessive prejudicial publicity leads to the pre-emption of functions of the Court and it encroaches and prejudices legal proceedings and justice administration. The court mentioned that the offenders can approach “an appropriate writ court and seek an order of postponement of the offending publication/ broadcast or postponement of reporting of certain phases of the trial (including the identity of the victim or the witness or the complainant).” But the court also emphasized that such an order should only be applied in cases that have a real as well as a substantial risk of prejudice to the administration of justice or the fairness of the trial. The judgment concluded with the reiteration of the ruling that courts have evolved certain neutralizing techniques which include “postponement orders subject to the twin tests of necessity and proportionality.” Such orders would also put the Media to notice about possible contempt. ConclusionMedia trials have been termed as a boon for they have been proven to have affected the cases in many ways. Despite the presence of a plethora of norms, regulations, and precedents of precedents, the media has been acting blatantly wrong. In the name of their freedom of expression, they have been circulating rumors and selling their narratives to the general public. What is more surprising is the fact they have been going unchecked and they are over-exercising their powers. It is high time that media understands the need to cite only facts and figures of cases and not provide any adulterated news which would benefit only a section of their target audience. The media needs to be aware of its rights and duties and it should follow all the norms laid down for it. The judiciary too should keep checks and balances on the media for it is not a hidden fact that the media tries to take undue advantage of every sensitive topic running in the country. As a responsible media, it should present news with utmost accuracy, and caution and not impose its bias on the general public.

Author(s) Name: Bhavya Dubey (SVKM’s Pravin Gandhi College of law)

References:

[1]Dr. (Smt.) Nupur Talwar v State of U.P. and Anr. 2012, SCC 627

[2]Sidhartha Vashisht Alias Manu Sharma v State (NCT of Delhi) 2010, SCC (Cri) 1385

[3]Constitution of India, 1950, art 19(1)

[4]The Press Council of India, Norms of Journalistic Conduct (20th edition) 17

< presscouncil.nic.in/WriteReadData/Pdf/TWOZEROTWOZERONORMS.pdf >

[5]The Law Commission of India, Trial by Media: Free Speech Vs. Fair Trial Under Criminal Procedure (Law Com. No. 200 2006) <https://indiankanoon.org/doc/42810882/>

[6]Sahara India Real Estate Corp. Ltd. & Ors. v Securities & Exchange Board of India & Anr. 2013, 1 SCC 1